May East-bloc states now chart their own socialist paths?
``The Brezhnev doctrine is dead! Long live the ...'' So proclaimed the Yugoslavs during Mikhail Gorbachev's visit last month. But is Moscow's old mandate for management of the communist world really dead - and buried? The Soviet leader seemed to be saying something like that - or rather, the Yugoslavs said that was what he was saying.
Reading between the lines, the best answer probably is that this theory, employed by the late Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to warrant elimination of the Czechoslovak reform movement in 1968, has been set aside by Gorbachev, at least for the foreseeable future.
Not necessarily for all time, though. Questions inevitably present themselves.
In effect, the Soviets and Yugoslavs issued a declaration last month that looked like a Soviet pledge not to claim the Soviet Union as a ``model'' for other communist states, as was done in Joseph Stalin's day and periodically thereafter. It can be interpeted as excluding interference even if a local ``model'' ran afoul of Soviet ideas of its needs and those of the international movement. But all this was not 100 percent explicit.
There have been many declarations and agreements on noninterference over the years, first between the Soviets and Yugoslavs in 1955 - when Nikita Khrushchev called off Stalin's feud against Belgrade - and again in 1956. But in 1956, Khrushchev bloodily suppressed a reformist revolt in Hungary and made a bellicose - albeit vain - effort to interfere in Poland.
The Soviets reaffirmed noninterference at all-party conferences in 1957 and 1960 and at their own congress in 1966. Finally, the Warsaw Pact repeated it only a few weeks before its forces marched into Czechoslovakia.
It was Brezhnev who trotted out the new doctrine in the fall of 1968, when he perceived that the Yugoslavs and the Western parties were not going to let Czechoslovakia be quietly laid aside as an isolated exception.
In short, it was but a new twist to old ideology to reassert the ``right'' to leadership and authority over the whole communist movement. Other communist states had a duty to intervene - even militarily - if developments in another put the ``survival of socialism'' at risk.
It was not until 1976 that Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito and the Eurocommunists finally compelled Brezhnev to accept - in writing - that each communist state is entitled to chart its ``road to socialism.''
In Belgrade last month, it was seen as a further Yugoslav victory that Gorbachev pronounced his own rejection of Moscow's ``classic'' ideological attitudes toward its allies. Any threat, or use, of force and interference in the internal affairs of other states ``under any pretext whatsoever'' is out, the two parties agreed.
It sounded good and it was in line with the ``new thinking'' in the Kremlin over the past three years. It underlined Gorbachev's evident belief in more equality as well as more realism in Soviet ties with allies. The Hungarians and others are testifying that relations now are more relaxed and easier than ever before.
But Gorbachev has not, for example, said that he regards the ``use of force'' against Prague as a mistake. Most probably he does. But if he were to say so, openly, the present regime could topple tomorrow - and, above all, he is concerned with stability in Eastern Europe.
Steadily growing demands are taking shape for open political reform to go hand in hand with the economic reforms, nowhere more articulately than in Hungary, the pioneer of East-bloc reform.
Not since the early postwar Stalin years has the ``leading role'' of communist parties been under such challenge both from without and within their own ranks. As in 1956 and 1968 and again in Poland in 1981, the reformers could push too fast, too far.
Would - could - even Gorbachev look placidly on at the emergence of political streams that really threatened the ``right'' of ultimate policymaking and the maintenance of single-party communist rule?
As it is, he is already very much under Stalinist pressures against reform from high levels of his own party. Such pressures explain his frequent stress on the frontiers of glasnost (openness): everything is up for discussion, as long as it does not ``harm socialism'' - or seek to set up alternatives to it.
In Poland, in 1981, martial law - however unpalatable - undoubtedly averted the internal chaos that could have left Moscow no option but intervention. Suppose such a situation were to arise again?
Gorbachev obviously hopes such problems will not crop up. Nor should they, as long as he manages to overcome the challenges at home and so long as Soviet-US relations do not let him down.
As former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brezezinski has pointed out, the Nixon-Brezhnev concept of d'etente was principally devised to prevent superpower rivalries from getting out of hand. That d'etente was soured by Afghanistan. Today, Mr. Brezezinski is not alone in seeing the renewal in the Gorbachev period as something deeper, in fact, as a unique opportunity for stabilizing US-Soviet relations, and East-West relations generally.